Double Bind
The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights
by Meredith Tax
Centre for Secular Space, New York, 2014

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here
Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism
by Karima Bennoune
WW Norton, New York, 2013

by Bill Weinberg, Dissent News Wire/Middle East Policy

Psychologist Gregory Bateson defines a "double bind" as a dilemma in which people are given conflicting sets of instructions so that obeying one means violating the other.

Meredith Tax in her brief study Double Bind (first published in the UK and now released in an American edition) explores that faced by the human rights community and progressives generally in confronting the "war on terrorism," in which Western states have committed horrific abuses in an ostensible struggle against reactionary political Islam. How do we defend the right to dissent when those being abused by the state do not recognize the right of others to dissent from their authoritarian dogmas?

Tax begins by examining the case of Gita Sahgal, the former head of Amnesty International's gender unit, who left in 2010 in protest of the organization's partnership with CagePrisoners, a group that advocates on behalf of detainees at Guatnánamo Bay—actually founded by an ex-detainee. In response to her criticisms, Amnesty's interim secretary general Claudio Cordone said that CagePrisoners' doctrine of "defensive jihad" was not antithetical to defense of human rights.

CagePrisoners was founded by Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim who ran a Birmingham bookstore that sold jihadist literature and briefly fought in Bosnia before moving on to Afghanistan, apparently enthused by Taliban rule. After 9-11, he was picked up by US forces and detained at Bagram air base near Kabul before being transferred to Guatnánamo. He confessed (under torture, by his later account in his memoir Enemy Combatant) to collaborating with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He was released from Guatnánamo without charge after three years. After Double Bind’s publication, he was arrested by British authorities on charges of recruitment for the Syria insurgency, and released after several months for lack of evidence.

Tax accuses Amnesty—as well as the Center for Constitutional Rights and the British human rights group Reprieve, which also partnered with CagePrisoners—of embracing the "ideological framework" of the Muslim right. CagePrisoners' self-described "Islamic ethos," she argues, betrays an exclusivism at odds with the universal values of human rights. But, beyond that, the group's particular "Islamic ethos" seems to be that of Islam's most reactionary manifestations.

Tax finds that the doctrine of "defensive jihad" originates with al-Qaeda co-founder Abdullah Azzam’s early manifesto The Defense of Muslim Lands. And CagePrisoners embraced exponents of this ideology. Tax cites their online videos promoting Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011—although CagePrisoners later claimed that when the group invited him to speak at their fundraising events they were unaware that he had spoken and written in support of killing civilians. Farhad Ansari, a frequent commentator on the CagePrisoners website, wrote of 9-11 that "you cannot help but feel a little happiness that for once, the hunter has become the hunted." Begg himself later called 9-11 "dishonorable," while emphasizing that US attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq were far worse. Tax still notes with sad irony that CagePrisoners received funding from groups such as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker pacifist foundation.

Tax charges that CagePrisoners is not truly a human rights organization, but engages in a duplicitous discourse to fool Western supporters. She finds that its ideology in fact violates provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrining equality before the law and freedom of conscience and religion.

Tax acknowledges that the "counter-terrorist apparatus" commits human rights abuses and "entraps people who might never have done anything without prompting from the Federal Bureau of Investigation." She invokes what Algerian human rights attorney Karima Bennoune has termed the prevailing paradigm of "Terror/Torture."

And she argues that this paradigm has led many on the political left to become confused. She calls the left's infatuation with the Muslim right "the love that dare not speak its name." Yet it has actually been fairly blatant.

Among her many examples, she cites progressive London Mayor Ken Livingston joining with populist MP George Galloway at a welcome ceremony for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. She notes use of the slogan "We are all Hezbollah" by London anti-war protesters. The Third European Social Forum, held in London in 2004, featured the Islamist scholar Tariq Ramadan, while denying a feminist collective space for a panel on "Unholy Alliances" between the left and Muslim right. The Muslim Association of Britain, said to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, joined with Stop the War coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for the 2001 protests against the Iraq war. Apparently the UK's Socialist Workers Party (a key formation behind Stop the War) even acceded to demands from Muslim conservatives for gender-segregated seating at meetings.

In the states, Ramsey Clark, a former US attorney general turned anti-war spokesman, and former congressional representative (and Green Party presidential candidate) Cynthia McKinney dined with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his visit to the UN in 2010. In 2012, when a United National Antiwar Coalition met in Hartford to oppose war and sanctions on Iran, it rejected by overwhelming majority a proposed resolution condemning human rights violations within the Islamic Republic.

Tax decries leftist enthusiasm for the insurgency in Iraq, noting that it was directed less against the US occupation than Iraq's own people—for instance, targeting women with death and abduction for refusing to take the veil. She writes that "the far left's embrace of Islamic fundamentalism…mirrors distortions about Islam put about by anti-immigrant conservatives—the far right talks as if all Muslims were potential terrorists, while the far left talks as if salafi-jihadis represented all Muslims."

But Tax actually rejects the distinction between "moderate Islamists" and the extremists she calls "salafi-jihadis." She writes: "The goal of all political Islamists…whatever means they prefer, is a state founded upon a version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities."

Is a distinction of "means" really insignificant—as if the difference between al-Qaeda or ISIS on one hand and Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia's Ennahda on the other were merely one of tactics? When tactics are as extreme as those of the former category, it obviously speaks to a far more totalitarian ideology. We can oppose all political Islam without sloppily painting all manifestations of it with the same broad brush.

Some other points attempting to disabuse the left of illusions about political Islam are similarly poorly formulated. In a litany of "wrong ideas" about the Muslim right, Tax lists the notion that the "Muslim right is anti-imperialist," asserting: "The Taliban began as an ally of the US, financed by the CIA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan." This is assuredly not so. The Taliban did not emerge until 1994, five years after the Soviets had left Afghanistan. There has been speculation that the CIA underwrote the Taliban through Pakistani proxies, but Tax is pretty clearly confusing the Taliban with the massively CIA-backed Mujahedeen.

Tax rightly points out that the overwhelming majority of al-Qaeda's victims have been Muslims, but not so rightly states that the main source of funding for salafi-jihadis has been Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia backed both the Mujahedeen in the 1980s and Taliban in the ‘90s, but after the 1996 Khobar Towers attack and many subsequent ones by jihadis within the Saudi kingdom, it is pretty clear that there has been a parting of the ways between the Riyadh regime and (at least) the more radical militant networks.

If Islamist extremism really were only a tool of imperialism, the issue would be a lot easier for progressives. In reality, however, the relationship is more one of mutual exploitation on an ad hoc basis, and mutual antagonism on a more fundamental basis. The greater challenge for dissident progressives is to discredit the enemy-of-my-enemy thinking altogether.

Tax is on similarly problematic ground in her call to dispense with the term "Islamophobia." She writes that there is nothing "phobic" or irrational about the anti-Muslim campaigns of the right, which are aimed at "further militarizing social control." This is rather begging the question—social control towards what end? Yes, there is a spectrum between those on the right who cynically exploit anti-Muslim sentiment and those who truly embrace it (one whom she cites, demagogic Dutch politician Geert Wilders, probably falls into the latter category), but if we are going to abandon the term "Islamophobia," we will have to abandon "xenophobia" on the same grounds. This semantic hair-splitting is unhelpful.

She is on more valid ground in calling out Islamist use of the term "Islamophobia" to "describe anyone who criticizes Muslim laws on women," as a means "to cut off criticism." But this doesn't mean that the word itself should be verboten—only that we should guard against its abuse. When Christian fundamentalists who advocate a return to the biblical law of Leviticus rail against sharia as the work of the Devil, that is indeed Islamophobia. When secularists reject rule by biblical law or sharia equally, that is definitely not. It is single-standard secularism.

Tax rightly points out that contrary to Islamist propaganda, the West's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not motivated by Islamophobia, but by geopolitical concerns such as control of oil. But the paroxysm of Islamophobia that followed 9-11 certainly lubricated the war drives—at least.

In rejecting left-wing apologias for terrorism, Tax offers the cliché that "violence breeds violence." It certainly does, but that doesn't mean it is not sometimes inevitable, and one wonders if Tax takes a pure pacifist position when the question is not Islamist terrorism—but, for instance, opposing it.

In discussing the "wrong idea" that "any feminist who criticizes the Muslim far right is an Orientalist and ally of imperialism," Tax quotes Leila Ahmed of Harvard, who states with acumen: "[T]he question now is how we address such issues while not allowing our work and concerns to aid and abet imperialist projects, including war projects that mete out death and trauma to Muslim women under the guise and to the accompaniment of a rhetoric of saving them."

But Tax again dodges the complexity of the question, writing that we "face an emerging conservative front in which Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to be allies than adversaries and human rights are of no concern to either." Yet ultimately, Washington acquiesced in the Egyptian coup against the Brotherhood-led government, and the beltway neocons no less than Moazzam Begg and his ilk have exploited concern with human rights to further their agendas. Tax writes that there is "convergence as well as opposition between the US and Muslim right." But if those she criticizes are blind to the convergence, Tax seems insufficiently aware of the very real opposition.

Tax ends this discussion with a refreshing call for the Anglo-American left to overcome its "imperial narcissism" which places the US (and UK) at the center of the universe, and instead offer solidarity with women and secular forces in the Middle East on the basis of shared values, and resist conflating this with patronizing "rescue." She protests: "[W]hile some women antiwar activists have been very vocal about drones and troop withdrawal, they have barely uttered a peep in support of the Afghan women's agenda—as if the fact that former First Lady Laura Bush said a few hypocritical words about Afghan women’s human rights means that nobody else should ever mention them again."

It its sadly telling that she has to close by stating what should be obvious: "Democratic governance is based on the idea that the authority of the state is delegated by the people rather than coming from God, and separation of the state from religion is essential to democracy."

Can progressives in the West keep sight of these fundamentals—while remaining steadfast against the torture and detention state, discrimination at home and military aggression abroad?

Karima Bennoune, the Algerian-American rights attorney cited by Tax, has written a weightier book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, with first-hand reportage on struggles against political Islam from several countries. Bennoune opens by making clear this is a personal issue for her, describing an attempt on the life of her activist father in Algiers by the Armed Islamic Group in 1993. She also immediately states the dilemma: "This tome in no way justifies discrimination against Muslims or unlawful violence against anyone, including those alleged to be Muslim fundamentalists or merely confused with them. It is not an apology for the Iraq War or waterboarding. It offers no comfort to right-wing anti-Muslim demagogues (the Pamela Gellers of the world) or the supporters of the policies of the Israeli government or George W. Bush, though undoubtedly some critics may claim it does. Criticizing Muslim fundamentalists is mistakenly equated with support for the actions of Western governments that claim to be their opponents. This is just wrong, and it entirely overlooks the fact that not everything is about the West."

Bennoune writes in exasperation that "either the right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards…decrying 'Sharia in America,' or left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid are there to tell us how great what they call Sharia really is…" The protesters against the Islamic cultural center planned for a site near Manhattan's Ground Zero "loathed not fundamentalism but seemingly all Muslims." The "soundtrack" of the Iraq war, the detentions, and the hate crimes has been "a diatribe from the Far Right in the West increasingly suggesting that all Muslims are members of one big sleeper cell and that there is something inherently wrong with this religion, and this religion only."

Yet she takes an equally dim view of the Muslim protests against the 2012 provocateur YouTube "film" that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. "Given that fundamentalists themselves had some two weeks earlier desecrated several Muslim holy sites in Libya not in keeping with their own dogma, eliciting barely a whiff of protest, it was hard to take their sensitivities too seriously, however appalling the Innocence of Muslims was." Bennoune sees a "clash of right wings, not a clash of civilizations." She prefers to emphasize "clashes within civilizations, like those between fundamentalists and their opponents everywhere."

Bennoune does not take a pure anti-war stance, writing that "use of force is sometimes necessary to combat some manifestations of armed Salafi jihadism. Too many Western liberals and leftists do not recognize this." She decries that attacks such as the 2012 car-bomb assassination of Hanifa Safi, a regional head of Afghanistan's Women's Affairs Ministry, conitnue as "the peace movement endlessly lobbies for an end to international action against the Talbs" while "mouthing platitudes" about how Islam is a religion of peace. But the book focuses on those "engaged in peaceful resistance to extremism," whose "efforts constitute a far superior way of defeating it than the phenomenon formerly known as the 'War on Terror.'"

Contrary to what Tax terms "imperial narcissism," Bennoune writes, "Muslim fundamentalism is not a essentially a security question for Westerners. At its very core, it is a basic question of human rights for hundreds of millions of people who live in Muslim majority countries and populations around the world."

Bennoune also calls out Amnesty International for betraying Gita Sahgal and endorsing the "jihad in self-defense" doctrine, noting that this was protested in an open letter by Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani and Egyptian feminist Nawal al Sawadi, among others.

She protests that the Center for Constitutional Rights (on whose board Bennoune sat) represented the interests of Anwar al-Awlaki in a case against the Obama White House over drone strikes. "I certainly oppose death lists," she writes. "The problem is that Awlaki had his own." In a list published in Inspire, the jihadist journal Awlaki edited, names appearing below the image of a gun included Salman Rushdie and the exiled Somali feminist Ayan Hirsi Ali.

"One of the characteristics of Western left-of-center responses to Muslim fundamentalism," she writes, "has often been to talk about something else whenever the topic comes up. The anniversary of 9-11 is a time to criticize the US government. An Afghan woman having her nose cut off by the Taliban becomes a platform for saying that there is violence against women everywhere. I think when we talk about Muslim fundamentalism, we have to actually talk about it."

She also cites the example of "Tariq Ramadan, the telegenic grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who disapproves of homosexuality, feminism, and secular Muslims, being celebrated at the World Social Forum and lionized on the influential left-wing radio show Democracy Now. This positioning by parts of the Western Left abandons the Left on the ground to its fate. Of course the reverse is also true, and a few radical secularists and anti-jihadists line up with the West's Far Right and its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam agenda."

This positioning is all the more ironic given that "Muslim fundamentalists often seek to defeat the movements most likely to be able to tackle social injustice—social democrats, the humanist Left, trade unions, human rights advocates, women's rights defenders."

In her wide-ranging travels, Bennoune profiles many who have stood up to threats and actual attacks by fundamentalists to advance elementary freedoms: a theater troupe in Lahore; radio producers who promote indigenous pop music in Algeria; promoters of indigenous language preservation in Somalia (the Shabab insurgents seek the hegemony of Arabic); Afghan scholars who sought to preserve priceless pre-Islamic artifacts from being destroyed by the Taliban; the "liberal mullah" of Herat, Syed Ahmad Hosaini, who preaches gender equality; Maria Bashir, Herat's provincial prosecutor and the only woman to hold such a position in Afghanistan; defenders of women sentenced to stoning for such "crimes" as "adultery" in Nigeria; women's rights advocates in Sudan, where women can receive 40 lashes for not wearing "Islamic dress"; a Chechen newspaper editor in Moscow who opposes both the fundamentalist terror in his homeland and the Russian chauvinism that stigmatizes the Muslims of the Caucasus; displaced Malians in Bamako who fled the brutal rule by Islamist militias in the north of the country, and spoke out about their abuses at great risk.

Bennoune didn't go to Iran for fear of putting her contacts at risk, but spoke to Iranian exiles in Europe who protest ongoing abuses back home—such as the infuriating case of a 13-year-old girl hanged for "crimes against chastity" after she was repeatedly raped by a family member.

Many of the cases Bennoune offers are from her native Algeria: journalists who were targeted for death—and even had their offices blown up—for daring to criticize the jihadists; educators who continued to teach girls in spite of death threats during the insurgency of the 1990s; the survivors group Djazairouna that has demanded justice for their lost kin in defiance of ongoing threats; feminists who in this dangerous era founded the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women (RAFD—the Arabic word for "refuse"). Many paid with their lives for such refusals of fundamentalist rule.

One of Bennoune's most compelling entries concerns community organizers in the Somali community in Twin Cities, who tried to counter the clandestine recruiting drive of their youth by Shabab (who in their areas of control in Somalia are carrying out amputations and desecrating the tombs of Sufi saints). Exemplifying the dilemma, one such organizer, Abdirizak Bihi, agreed to testify before House Homeland Security chair Rep. Peter King's hearings on "Radicalization in the American Muslim community." Bennoune writes that this "risked playing into the hands of both the anti-Islamic fringe of the Republican Party and Muslim fundamentalists who try to convince Muslims that Americans vilify them. On the other hand, King’s liberal and Muslim American critics seemed to act as if there was no problem at all. Islamic radicalization? What Islamic radicalization?"

She again has to state what should be painfully obvious: "The fact that the lamentable George W. Bush declared war on terrorism does not make it a good thing."

Bennoune's most instructive discussion concerns Palestine. She portrays the deteriorating status of women in Gaza under Hamas rule—for instance, the Hamas pledge of payments to men who will marry war widows fueling a rise in polygamy. "The group's violent acts against Israelis have gained the most press; its coercion of Palestinians is much less discussed." One activist Bennoune spoke to in Gaza cycled up the Strip's coast in an act of disobedience against the absurd Hamas ban on women riding bicycles.

But Bennoune is sensitive to how these abuses are exploited for propaganda purposes. A penultimate chapter on the West Bank, entitled "A Baby Cries at Qalandia Checkpoint: Opposing Injustice in the Struggle against Muslim Fundamentalism," details humiliations suffered by Palestinians at the maze of Israeli security checkpoints they must endure to travel through their own homeland. Bennoune notes that many treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "explicitly prohibit the misuse of their guarantees for the purpose of threatening human rights themselves." She interviews George Giacaman of the Palestinian pro-democracy think-tank Muwatin, who states that the "stigma of terrorism" is useful for Israel. "Any form of resistance is described as terrorism, not just targeting civilians." On the other hand, "When Israel targets civilians, this is not called terrorism."

On leaving the West Bank, Bennoune writes in her journal: "Nothing I write should ever be used to justify what I have seen here."


This first ran as two reviews, Nov. 5 on Dissent News Wire, and in the Winter 2014 issue of Middle East Policy.

See also:

An Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas
by Maryam Namazie, Fitnah
World War 4 Report, December 2013

by Angola 3 News
World War 4 Report, September 2012

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Jan. 10, 2015